All critics have their biases, so before I review the Netflix series, Transatlantic, let me confess one of mine: I’m predisposed to like any series or film that features philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin as a character. Walter Benjamin, played by German actor Moritz Bleibtrau, is an important figure in the early episodes of Transatlantic.
The series tells a fact-based drama about Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith), an American diplomat in France who ran a rescue network for Jews and others who were targeted by the Nazis. He is believed to have saved between 2,000 and 4,000 Jews and was one of the first Americans to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, for saving Jewish lives in the early 1940s.
Fry also saved the lives of many artists who fled Paris – which had seen a great flowering of the arts during the post-World War I era (chronicled by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast) – to the Vichy-controlled south of France. Naturally, there was much overlap between the two groups, since many of the artists and literary figures were Jewish.
The series features the artists and writers Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Hannah Arendt and Marcel Duchamp, among others, as characters. The idea of this group of extravagantly talented people living under one roof, as many of them did for a short time, in a villa provided by Fry’s friend and lover, Thomas Lovegrove (played by Israeli actor Amit Rahav) is tantalizingly dramatic. Even American heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim (Jodhi May) dropped by to join the fun.
Historians can dispute the accuracy of every detail in the series, but it is true that these were among the people whom Fry rescued.
The series focuses on the efforts by Fry and a self-assured young American woman living in France, Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs, a lively actress who played the enjoyably obnoxious Mimi-Rose on Girls), to rescue Jews in Marseilles under the nose of senior US diplomat Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll of House of Cards and many other roles, who is so good at playing bad guys).
Patterson isn’t really a bad guy here, just an ordinary, greedy guy, who sees an opportunity to make business deals with the Nazis. But being ordinary at that time meant you were fine with sending Jews to their deaths.
Several aspects of this series make it distinct from many previous depictions of Holocaust rescue operations. Among them is the fact that many African migrants are among those who work to help the rescue effort, and that Fry is portrayed as a tormented, closeted homosexual.
Fry never acknowledged publicly that he was gay, although in response to a critical review by Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times of the novel by Julie Orringer, on which the series is based, Fry’s son wrote in to say that he was certain his father was homosexual. It is indicated in the series that Fry’s sexual orientation, which made him an outsider, was partly why he chose to take the risks that he did for Jews and artists.
Transatlantic is especially interesting and entertaining in its depiction of how the artists lived in this villa. The highlight of the series for me was a party they throw, with surrealist painter Max Ernst (Alexander Fehling, who appeared in Homeland and starred in the Israeli film, Atomic Falafel) in charge of the decorations.
The production and costume designers should win every possible award for their work in this sequence – and the rest of the series – which features gorgeously off-kilter masks, costumes and décor. These scenes are a reminder of how these characters’ love of life fueled their determination to survive and show that how any creativity was rightly seen by the Nazis as a threat.
Finally, anyone interested in learning more about Benjamin might be interested to know that he was a close friend of kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem, who wrote about Benjamin in some of his memoirs, among them, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship.
The Diplomat: Not nearly as fun as it should be
IF YOU look back on many of the most successful shows in recent television history, such as The Sopranos, for example, you will remember the emotional, character-driven highs and lows, such as Tony’s sessions with his psychiatrist; his conflicts with his wife Carmela; his disappointment over his drug-addicted cousin, Christopher; and his distress over his son’s depression. But I’m betting you won’t remember his conflicts with various other crime families. The characters trumped the plot on virtually every episode.
But in the new Netflix series, The Diplomat, it’s the other way around. It stars Keri Russell, whom fans of The Americans will remember as one half of the series spy couple. This time, they are on the right side of the law as Kate, a tense, driven diplomat is getting ready for a post in Kabul – in the show’s telling, the US has resumed diplomatic relations with Afghanistan – where she feels she will really do some good.
But just before she leaves, she is suddenly tapped to be the US ambassador to the UK. It turns out that there is a scandal about to break concerning the US vice-president, and the president’s top advisers are considering her for the VP job and first want to see how she performs in all the pageantry that goes along with the ambassadorial post in Britain.
Not knowing about the vice-presidential scandal, she heads to London with her husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), in tow. Hal is a far more experienced diplomat than she, but for now, he is expected to take a back seat to her. They bicker like leads in an old-fashioned screwball comedy, as their marriage is supposedly crumbling.
Hal is busy maneuvering and plotting in all kinds of ways, some of which involve burnishing his wife’s career and others that have to do with back-channel diplomacy with Iran, while Kate acts like an entitled diva when she is asked to dress up and pose for a British Vogue photo shoot.
There are several other subplots unfolding in the first few episodes that are just as important as anything I’ve mentioned, and it’s an awful lot to keep straight. While I am happy to see Russell in a new series, the fact that she is so petulant when asked to pose for a photo op strains credulity and doesn’t make her character very likable, or even interesting. Sewell is much more entertaining as her charming, devious and vain spouse.
The Diplomat isn’t nearly as fun as it should be and reminds me of another bland series about a powerful woman, Madam Secretary.